Book of Cambyses, God Killer
There exists a book that can give you exactly what you desire, but at what cost?
[TW: gore]
By James Harper
•   •   •
Gigi hit the tequila again, the warmth more soothing this third time, as she surveyed Deidre’s living room. She hadn’t spent this much time with her in a minute, not that a lot had changed in the duration.
“So, how’s the practice?”
“Good. Great, really. Really great,” Deidre paused, savoring her own glass, “How’re you feeling? How’s the neuralgia?”
“Not – not good. But – but I’m managing.”
“I’m sorry. Is Dr. Brooks helping?”
“Oh yeah. Yes. She’s great. It’s just –”
“I know. It’s hard. Really hard. How’s work?”
“Really, really good. They’ve been so helpful, so supportive.”
“That’s so great. It’s wonderful they treat you so well.”
“Right? Plus, I’ve been given more responsibility. Now I’m in full control of all the chems delivered to the lab.”
“Really? All the chemicals, all those huge barrels?”
“Uh-huh. Especially the caustics. I route the traffic into the warehouse now.”
“That’s really great.”
In one of those moments during an otherwise engaging conversation when a lull occurs, a break where each side thinks about what has just been said before they consider what to say next, Gigi’s gaze drifted over to Deidre’s bookshelf. She pointed to a title.
“What’s that book?” 
“Which one do you mean?”
Gigi stood from the couch, setting her drink on the coffee table before walking to the bookcase. It consumed the entire wall, a reflection of Deidre’s rapacious reading habits. Touching the spine of Book of You, Gigi said, “This one.”
She pulled it from the shelf. “It’s the title that gets me.” The hardback looked simple, basic, a mauve cover without decoration, the color of the pansies in her garden. The gold lettering for the title on the spine shimmered as she rotated the book in her hands.
Looking to Deidre, she said, “What’s it about?”
Deidre’s cell buzzed. “Oh, you’ll love it. Might be just the thing for you. I got it from Lyssa,” she said, answering the phone. “Go ahead and take it.” The cell to her ear, the look she flashed telling Gigi the importance of the call. “How long has she presented this symptom?” She rose from her seat to take a brisk walk into the adjourning room.
Gigi studied the book, opening it. The first page intrigued her.
When History writes the Tales of Men, those who have
conquered themselves will be presented as conquerors
of others, of all the rest, for those who can control
their basic needs, reign in the negative all the
characteristics and turgid desires, will master those
whom they meet in everyday practice. And what everyday
occurrence, what happens every day that man has yet to conquer?
“Wow.” Gigi slipped the book into her canvas bag.
She finished her drink as Deidre reentered the living room. “Yeah, I’m sorry,” she said as she crossed to the foyer hallway. “I’m going to have to go.” As their practice, she shot Gigi the standard look that said all she needed to say: emergency at the hospital; gotta go.
•   •   •
At home, Gigi dove right into the book, reading as soon as she sat. The writing consumed her; her attention absorbed to its maximum as she immersed herself in the prose. In the space of a few hours, she found that she had just a few hundred pages to go, bringing with it the knowledge that she’d finish it in one day. That had happened to her only once before. Years ago, she had checked out Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novel, Out on the Cutting Edge, one Friday evening. She started it the next morning over her coffee then became so enthralled by the story that she abandoned all plans for that day, closing the book for good by dinnertime. Few satisfactions compare to reading an entire book in a single day. 
But what she had learned from Book of You amazed her.
The author, William McDaniels, outlined how pain as a physical manifestation could find control, even diminishment, in how one approaches its presentation. He wrote that when one seeks to control one’s own reception to pain, how one thinks about its effect, how one receives the pain, one can block it, stopping the pain before the discomfort begins.
Fascinated, Gigi devoured the book. At this point in her treatment, she stood ready to try anything, anything at all.
She picked up her phone, pressing the key for Dr. Brooks. After the voicemail played, she said, “Hey, Keiana, it’s Gigi. Have you heard of William McDaniels? He’s a pain specialist who wrote a book called Book of You. I just finished it. It’s so great. Anyway, I’m gonna start with his methodology so we can talk about it next week. What do I got to lose, right? See you Thursday.” She clicked off. 
Diving in, she spent the next two hours exploring and rereading McDaniels' methods and philosophy. The mind controls pain, he said, not, in fact, the brain. The key lies in using the mind, which in reality supersedes the function of the brain, to stop the pain before it brings debilitation.
As she read, she began to feel the familiar stabbing sensation of an attack, the creeping burning that enveloped her body. In that moment, she used McDaniels' thought process to push aside the shooting jabbing. For a second, it worked. She refocused her attention. In a slow but deliberate fashion, the pain lessened, not much but some. Then, as she strengthened her resolve, pushing through the doubt and skepticism, she began to feel more relief. In a few long minutes, she felt almost no pain at all.
“Oh my god.” She had to call Lyssa.
Dialing, Lyssa picked up on the second ring.
“Hey stranger,” Lyssa said.
“Hey, Sweetie, how you doing?”
“Actually, I’m great. How about you?”
“I’m terrific, never better. You busy tomorrow? Tomorrow afternoon?”
“Matter of fact, no.” 
“Let’s meet. Our yuge. Bout two.”
“What’s up?”
“Tell you when I see you.”
“Okay, cool. See you then.”
She met Lyssa at their usual haunt, Sidamo, a mom-and-pop coffee shop at Eastern Market. Her spoon clanked against the inside of her mug as she sat waiting for Lyssa to arrive. But when she came through the door, Gigi gasped aloud.
Lyssa had shrunk. The paper-thin skin on her body wrapped around her skeleton without any indication of muscle or tissue beneath. She looked like a prisoner from a Confederate prisoner camp during the Civil War, her face plastered to her skull such that her eyes bulged outward like orbs on a stick. It looked as if she hadn’t eaten in a year.
Gigi stood as she came to the table. “My God, Lyssa, what’s happened to you?”
With a grin that looked no better than the leer from a Halloween skull, she said, “You like? I’ve been on that new weight loss diet.” She twirled for effect before sitting. 
“Jesus, Lys, are you okay?”
Her teeth spread like a boneyard billboard behind her ribbon-like lips. “Never better.”
Aghast, Gigi opened her mouth three separate times before she said, “God, Lys, you look awful. Sweetie, I can see the joints in your elbow." She pointed to her left arm.
“I know, right? Isn’t it great?”
“No. No, not great. Not great at all.” She swallowed. “How did this happen?”
“It’s the book.”
“The book? The book did this to you?”
“Yeah. Well, no, not to me. But the book gave me the method so I could lose all that weight.”
“What? How?”
“Well, you’ve read it. You know.” She waved to a barista for a coffee. “I just applied the principles you’ve been learning.”
Gigi blinked. “I – I don’t even know what to say. How can pain prevention cause you to lose all that weight?”
“Pain prevention? What are you talking about?”
“Pain prevention. The Book of You is about how to master pain prevention.”
Lyssa raised an eyebrow. “No, it’s not. It’s about Universality.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Universality.” She smiled at the arrival of her coffee, a smile that dropped Gigi’s skin temperature by ten degrees. “You know, Rafael Vincini’s concept that all living creatures – everything everywhere – deserves the respect of Life, that life’s a gift to every living thing on the planet and that it must be respected and protected just as much as human life.”
Gigi’s eyes narrowed. “Hold up. Are you telling me the Book of You that you read is about the concept of universal respect for life?”
Lyssa nodded. Gigi could almost hear the bone on bone scraping of her neck. “Well, you know. You’ve read it too.”
“That – that’s not what I read.”
Lyssa cocked her head.
Gigi moved for her pocketbook. Reaching in, she pulled out the book. Looking at it, Lyssa’s eyes met hers in agreement. She opened to the title page. 
“Look. Here, it says Book of You: How to Conquer Pain, the Hidden Ravager of Life by William McDaniels.”
Lyssa scooted her chair next to her. Over Gigi’s shoulder, she pointed to the page, running her finger over the printed text. “No, it doesn’t,” she said, “It says Book of You: Universality in the 21st Century by Rafael Vincini.” She straightened to stare Gigi square in the face.
“Hold up a sec,” Gigi said. She waved to a waitress.
As she neared the table, Gigi held out the book. “Could you do me a favor? Could you read the title page aloud for us?”
With a look that said the request stood far from the strangest she had ever heard, the waitress said,” Sure.” Opening the book, she scanned the first page then read, “The Fallacy of Riches: How to Make Money Work for You.” With a matter-of-fact air, she handed it to Gigi.
Gigi eyed Lyssa. Together, they said, “We’ve been reading different books.”
•   •   •
Dr. Brooks’ voicemail bellowed in her ear. “Genieve, I got your voicemail. Listen to me: you can’t rely on the book you spoke about, that Book of You. It’s a scam circulating the internet. It’s a hoax, a farse, a piece-of-shit counseling that only does harm. No one should read it. I’ve got a dozen articles I’ll send you that prove it. From reliable journals, Genieve. Please, please stop reading it and, for God’s sake, don’t follow any of the advice in it.”
Gigi smiled as she clicked off. Dr. Brooks only used the name Genieve when she meant business.
•   •   •
Deidre switched on the video recorder in her iPhone, setting it against the kitchen counter to deliver the best angle. She checked the screen to make sure the angle caught all of her; she could not afford to have to readjust midway through.
“Hi, everybody. I’m about to do something I've been thinking about for some time. I decided to go ahead with this now, before – well, before I could talk myself out of it. I've been kinda scared to do it anyway 'cause – well, you'll know why by the end.”
She leaned into the phone, flashing her best smile. “Here goes.”
A scalpel lay on the counter surrounded by all of her best bath towels. If she lost her equilibrium, she wanted to be sure to not knock herself out striking her head on the hard Formica.
Taking the scalpel, Deidre pulled the hair on her nape to expose the skin, piling the mane onto her crown. Closing her eyes to concentrate, with slow, measured movements, she cut along the base of her hairline, feeling the incision as it moved across the edge of the bone of her skull. She felt the blood flow down her back, the warmth a relaxing comfort as she brought the blade from left to right.
Stopping the incision for a moment, she checked to make sure the skin had come free by pulling on the back of her hair, lifting the skin from her neck. She felt the tearing, an audible ripping like that of coarse fabric rending under powerful hands. Satisfied, she returned to cutting her skin away from her skull.
After reaching the point just behind her right ear, she stopped. Then, using both hands, she inserted her thumbs under the skin, grabbing her hair in handfuls to provide torque. She pulled her hair forward, the scalp coming free as she did, the sound loud and searing as she heard it both as an external noise and internal one, its sound reverberating inside her head.
Pulling her hair over her head, the skin tore away from the bone of her skull, ripping from its base as she used all her might to drag the flesh across the top of her head. Midway now, she sensed momentum aiding her in the struggle, the more skin she pulled the more ease she found in the process until she felt the hair come free from the top of her forehead. Blood flowed down her back and across her shoulders where, from the corner of her vision, she saw her arms drenched in red.
Taking a second grip on her hair, she took a deep breath. Then, in a strong mighty downward stroke, she pulled the skin of her face off her skull. 
She allowed a minute to look into the mirror to appreciate the effort. Looking back at her, her faceless skull, red with blood from her effort, the entire front of her façade glistened with  scarlet from the blood of her exposed under dermis. She saw the bone protrude at her cheeks, the eyes wide from the exercise. Glaring a smile that stared back at her in a grimace that showed all her teeth to the molars, she dropped her face, the skin like blood-drenched linen wet with crimson, to the floor where it landed with a soft thud.
•   •   •
Gigi saw Keiana’s name on her cell. “Hello,” she answered. 
“Genieve, it’s Dr. Brooks.”
“Did you listen to my voicemail?”
“So, look. You can’t follow any of the crap you’re reading in that book.”
“I’m serious. Listen, have you ever heard of the ancient legend of Cambyses?”
“Cambyses? No, I don’t think so.”
“He was an ancient king who ruled Persia. He had gained so much power, so much destructive force from his subjects and sycophantic followers that, legend has it, he challenged the gods.”
“The gods?”
“Yes. The legend goes that he actually killed one. He’s known throughout history as the God Killer.”
“Okay. So what? What does that have to do with me?”
“What gave him that strength, the source of his power came from the book he read. The one you hold, the Book of You. But it drove him mad. He went insane.”
“That’s impossible.”
“No. No, it’s not. Listen to me, Gigi. I need you to come into my office right away. We can talk about it; I’ll explain it to you.”
“Okay.” She clicked off. She had no intention of going to see Dr. Brooks. She had more important things to do.
•   •   •
It all coalesced for her in that instant; the timing, the required elements falling in line, the availability of needed materials, all came together as if the universe itself smiled upon her idea, proving it a worthwhile effort. 
The fans exhausted the air in the bath out of the windows and skylight, sending the toxic fumes from the room so that she could breathe easy, without the need of a mask. She clicked the video camera on her iPhone.
Speaking into the screen, she said, “Bout to do it. Bout to prove McDaniels' method of conquering pain.”
The tub filled with sulfuric acid awaited. “Getting the material from work was easy,” she grinned at her phone screen, “especially since I’m in charge. I chose sulfuric for several reasons. One, while the fumes are strong, they aren’t incapacitating like hydrochloric or piranha solution. Plus, the effects of sulfuric are not as immediate as some others.” She dropped her robe to the bath-matted tile floor. “As we shall soon see.”
Slipping into the bath tub, she felt the sensation of the acid as her skin struck it. “Not pain, but definitely a tingling.” The liquid roiled as she slid into the tub, her back to the wall as if taking a normal bath. “I will say it’s unique.” Foam began to develop, surfacing on the solution like froth at the ocean edge.
“No pain.”
The acid reacted to her body by roiling, the liquid moving at the immersion of her flesh. She held the phone over the surface of the acid to show the churning. “Contrary to popular belief, sulfuric acid, while considerably caustic, doesn’t consume denser organic material the way we’ve meant to believe. It will dissolve a piece of paper in seconds, but the reaction to a chicken drumstick or even a naked woman –” she turned the camera to her smiling face “takes much, much longer.” The surface continued to heave and agitate.
“Still no pain.”
She sensed the skin start to change in the acid. Looking, she saw strips of it begin to come away from the muscle tissue beneath, to pull off her body like the meat from a hambone. 
The liquid erupted in red as the skin excoriated away from her muscle tissue, the turbulent action not quite bubbling, more seething in motion. She knew the sensation of the dermis stripping into the acid, the layers of her pulling out like paint under a chisel.
“Still no pain.”
Looking to the ceiling, she exulted in the feeling, it alone the reason for doing this at all. She realized only she and she alone had ever done this since no one else could have gotten this from the book and no one else, even having read it would have arrived at this decision. 
Then the pain came. “Oh.”
In an instant, she felt the acid, the burning, stabbing fire of her body dissolving in the fluid. It tore at her, ripping, boiling her flesh as the tissue came away from her form.
“Oh my –” she grunted.
She tried to get out of the tub, placing her hand on the end of its edge. Too late. The acid had already eaten enough of her musculature so that the movement proved futile: the support structure of her body had evaporated in the human soup she now sat in.
She watched as pieces of her floated in the mixture, a pungent stench of cooking flesh and acrid chemical filled her senses. Her feet now just bone, she gasped at the phalanges and metatarsals that appeared before her.
She floundered in the tub, the acid sloshing across the tile. She felt the liquid as it ate into her body, the searing, tearing sensation excruciating in its torture. She could no longer sit up, the muscles in her back now part of the floating, gurgling broth of tissue and corrosive fluid. She began to choke as her upper thorax melted into the mixture, her neck bone exposed to the air.
The frothing liquid bubbled waves of alternating blood red, fecal black and mucus yellow, the smell of decomp and fetid meat swirling in the tub in a miniature maelstrom toxic flow. The room stank from the stench of mephitic turbulence.  
The last thing she saw, her final image before the caustic mix took her vision, came when she witnessed her abdominal organs float free from the confines of her transversus. The stomach and liver bursting from within to splash back into the pool.
But the loss of eyesight only saved her from seeing what happened next. It took another thirty minutes before life slipped away from her.
•   •   •
A transplanted native in a city full of them, James Harper is a writer working in Washington DC. His latest horror story, "Second Newton," just launched in Legion Press: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction. His horror novella, "Sultrazusthra," can be found in Dark Horses Magazine #18 from Hobb's End Press, edited by Wayne Kyle Spitzer. His homage to Mary Shelley, "Frankenstein at the Tomb of the Merlins," saw reprint in Abominable - Anthology of Monster Stories from Wicked Shadow Press, edited by Parth Chakraborty. "Bells & Whistles," came out in Demonic Medicine: Take Your Pills!, from 4 Horsemen Publications, edited by S.L. Vargas. His novelette, "Do Not Open," appears in The Trick is to Keep Breathing, edited by Tendai Rinos Mwanaka. "Death Before Birth," another novelette, can be found in Dark Horses Magazine #2. "Eighth Deadly Sin," just launched in Madame Gray's Vault of Gore, edited by Gerri R. Gray for HellBound Books. October 2021 also saw the publication of "The Underneath" in Books of Horror Community Anthology, Volume 3, Part 1, edited by R.J. Roles and Jason Myers and "Broking Bodies" in Terror Unleashed, edited by Ramsey Scott for Skywatcher Press. "Mortal Limits," can be found in Unbreakable Ink, edited by Shebat Legion. "Krokodil" appears in Little Demons Digest, Volume 3, edited by Martin Fisher. Several other of his stories can be found on Amazon@HarperinDC

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